NOTE: The following post is about builds, and applies to all modes of Guild Wars 2 (and Guild Wars). It draws examples from all modes of the games as well.
Elite skills hold an odd niche in Guild Wars 2. On the one hand, they have the longest cooldowns of any skill on the bar, with a few rare exceptions*. On the other, combat is so skill use-heavy that often elites need to be saved for “the right moment.” And oftentimes, “the right moment” never happens.
*Basilisk Venom, Renewed Focus come to mind as short cooldown elites.
This is a lot different from the cherished role they used to hold in Guild Wars. Not using an elite during an encounter in any part of the original game was like fighting with one arm tied behind one’s back.
So why the shift? What happened to elites, and why can players simply forget to use them and not notice the difference? And is there any hope for making elites feel elite without shoving them into the realm of hopelessly overpowered?
A Quick History: Elites in Guild Wars 1
Veterans of the original Guild Wars can regale you with tales of buildcrafting, team composition down to the individual skill bars, and situations where nearly every skill (of the 1300+ available) could be useful.
Ask a little further, and the words “oh, I built a bar around <this elite skill>” are going to pop up. Elites defined builds, providing a focus to slot the other 7 skills around, and what rough attribute spread to aim for.
Mechanically, the reasons are simple:
Elites did things other skills didn’t. Shadow Form (completely invulnerable to everything while active, but leaves the caster with almost no health when it expires) defined tanking for the back half of the game’s life, because nothing in the game was similar*.
*Obsidian Flesh and Vow of Silence, also elite skills, could be argued, but they didn’t cause attacks to miss, only spells to fail.
Or elites did things better, cheaper, and faster (both cast time and cooldown). Spiteful Spirit did the same general thing as Empathy (damage when the enemy attacks), but it dealt the damage in AoE on any action at all. To boot, it had a lower cooldown and energy cost than other similar skills. Its only downside compared to similar skills was a 2 second cast time instead of 1 second*.
*And that was after a nerf. It was released with only a 1 second cast time.
They could also push a build to do things it couldn’t without the elite. For example, the normal skill Infuse Health (which sacrificed half of the caster’s current health to give 100+x% of the amount lost to the target) was a suicidal skill to slot without things like Healer’s Boon (increased how effective any heals cast were, and halved their cast time) or Word of Healing (healed for more than double when target, including self, was below 50% health) to rapidly heal back to full.
All three put elites in a class all their own, creating opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Without them, builds and team compositions would have been far less varied and some aspects wouldn’t have existed at all.
A Shift in Focus: The Importance of Stats
But shift into Guild Wars 2, and a different rooster rules the roost: gear. Rather than skills being dependent on attributes for most of their strength, they are only affected by the overall power provided by gear (with a knock-on effect from precision and ferocity).
Also, other direct player stats like health, defense, and condition strength are defined not by a smattering of runes equipped on armor, but by primary stats that are chiefly provided by gear. Runes and traits contribute some amount to the final stat value, yet they pale in comparison to the hefty benefit derived from gear.
Elites Define Almost Nothing
As a result, builds aren’t defined by elites at all. They’re defined by gear first, then traits and utility skills, and lastly weapons. Some elites might play a role in picking traits, especially those affected by particular traits, but that’s long after gear has decided what’s within the realm of possible*.
*No matter how well someone plays, a berserker guardian is going to be terrible at bunkering a point or healing up allies. Swap the same person into cleric’s or knight’s, and everything changes.
Elites went from top of the build food chain to dead last. And of the few choices players get (each profession has only 3, excluding PvE-locked racial elites and the Mistfire Wolf), most are ignorable 90% of the time. Encounter after encounter can be completed without pressing zero (or your keybind of choice), and in PvP overall capability only drops a little for most builds*.
*There are exceptions that rely on the elite, though, like thieves using Basilisk Venom. But it’s also on a very low cooldown for an elite.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing due to the reversal of elite cooldowns compared to Guild Wars. In GW, elites were generally lower cooldown than ordinary skills. They were meant to be used often in their intended role. When compared against skills that have a 2 minute or more cooldown, it’s a good thing that elites don’t define builds like they once did.
Lynchpins to Lost Causes
But what is bad is the wide range of elites in practice:
- Awesome but Impractical: Some are cool ideas that in practice don’t fit that well with other things (Let me Rampage! Or Tornado! Or…oh crud, wrong thing to jump into).
- Brokenly Powerful: Others are overpowered and only balanced against their cooldown and a profession’s primary weaknesses (hello there, Lich Form, have you met my friend Supply Crate?).
- Boring but Practical: A few are extremely useful but have less glitz than a bomb crater (Renewed Focus, I’m invulnerable for 2 seconds! And getting virtues! No, it doesn’t suck!).
- Cool and Awesome: Only a couple reach the status of feeling elite and being elite at the same time (Basilisk Venom, I turned you to stone, and opened a killer combo to practically delete you!).
For a game that has only 24 elites total, there shouldn’t be such a wide range of usefulness. I can understand cases where some elites are awesome in one mode but worthless in another (yeah, Time Warp the fight for mid point, totally more useful than Polymorphing someone or making everyone invisible for 5 seconds).
But there are elite skills that don’t really fulfill anything in any mode. Elixir X could either be an AoE CC tornado worthy of sticking in a WvW zerg composition, or a Rampage making one person (and only one person) miserable. Bonus points that one throws enemies away (a PvE no-no).
While it may be difficult to pull off the holy grail of “feels elite, is elite”, it should not be the case that elite skills pull off neither in every game mode (Elixir X). Or are balance nightmares kept in check by specific things other players have to exploit (Lich Form and a necro’s weakness against mass CC and immobilize).
Effort needs to be taken to bring parity to those cases, bringing them alongside the few skills that shine out as proper elites that do something special (and useful) when they are used. Even if that something special isn’t that awesome-looking (I just gave myself a ton of boons that last forever, fear me!).
Upsetting the Status Quo
Before I delve into some suggested fixes for those elites, this entire line of thought begs the question: when to effect this rebalancing?
Simple: with the expansion. Heart of Thorns is going to upset the balance massively anyway, with the addition of a new profession, nine specializations, and the introduction of new mechanics. And that’s assuming that no balancing is done to the existing professions, which I doubt.
If it’s not already on the slate of things to address when the status quo gets thrown overboard, elite rebalancing should be. It’s a natural breakpoint in the cadence of the meta, and presents a clear opportunity to do major tweaks that would be difficult to do otherwise.
An Elite Rundown
To help provide a concrete set of things to act on, here’s my takes on the elite skills currently in Guild Wars 2, and what could be done to improve them:
Needs changes: No.
Tome of Courage
Needs changes: No. However, in PvE it’s currently a “my party screwed up, time to save them” elite. Only in rare attrition scenarios (high-level Volcanic fractal comes to mind) is it a good option. That said, encounter design governs the usefulness of Tome of Courage in PvE.
Tome of Wrath
Needs changes: Yes. The problem with Tome of Wrath is that it is meant to be an offensive counterpart to Tome of Courage, with similar skills, an identical cooldown, and the exact same limitations.
But everything in the game provides damage, burning is a very limited condition for damage due to duration stacking, and the buffs/conditions attached to the skills aren’t that powerful in most cases, or can be applied by other skills faster and cheaper in cooldown.
Nothing sets Tome of Wrath apart compared to the unique skills of Tome of Courage. Instead of healing all allies to full health (crazy powerful), there’s a long knockdown (warriors can spam it harder, more often). And it’s on a very long cooldown.
This can’t be fixed without breaking a lot of the symmetry between the two Tomes. Changing recharge, changing skills to better match the offensive approach (instead of 1:1 thematic opposition), and it would be in a much better spot.
Needs changes: No, though the universal awesome of this elite should seriously be looked at as a template for how to make an elite skill.
Needs changes: Yes. This elite can absolutely ruin someone’s day for 20 full seconds, with just as much CC as a hammer coupled with chase potential and an extra dose of tank. But that’s all it does.
And in sPvP, its most likely niche for usefulness, just equipping a hammer is almost as good. Warriors don’t need constantly refreshed stability, especially with utilities like Dolyak Signet and Balanced Stance, and hammer provides more team support and control.
The juggernaut theme needs to be kept, but the mass of low cooldown CC makes it flirt the line between extremely powerful and irrelevant (its current location as other options are more compelling, both in and out of meta). Toning down the CC in favor of a more damage-focused behemoth would be easier to balance and create a new niche. Who wouldn’t want to throw punches that could deck Muhammad Ali?
Signet of Rage
Needs changes: No. It’s a good simple elite that provides good reasons to use the active part of the skill as well.
Needs changes: Yes. Random effects are random, and not reliable by definition. Elite skills with their very long cooldowns need a baseline expectation. All Elixir X guarantees is “lots of CC.” Is it AoE-based with blinds (Tornado)? Or a single-target doom machine (Rampage)? Or is it a whirlpool or plague (underwater options)?
And because of that wide variance in what to expect, it fits no niche at all. In PvE, Rampage might have a good use, but a Tornado is counterproductive most of the time. In PvP, Tornado would be more powerful than Rampage, but why take the skill when Supply Crate holds far more power behind its use?
Random effects don’t work when their trigger times are very far apart (in this elite’s case, 105 seconds apart). Sure, the enemy doesn’t know what to expect, but neither does the player. Rather than copping full transforms from other professions, Elixir X needs to have a baseline expectation, and small variations within the skill list.
So instead of Rampage or Tornado, Elixir X has the chance to create a themed juggernaut or elemental force, but 2 of the skills are very similar and the other 3 and the status effect create the theme. Then there’s a minimum expectation to play around, rather than having a 50/50 shot of what a player actually wants.
Needs changes: Yes. Mortar robs an engineer of his most powerful weapon, mobility, and gives him moderate stability to compensate. It’s built for siege situations, which never happen in PvP, rarely are worth the time in WvW compared to using grenades, and also never happen in the always moving around approach of PvE.
And thematically, there is no way to fix this. Mortar is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist in Guild Wars 2 with its focus on mobility and positioning. Stepping back from “Mortar”, though, and recrafting it to “Rocket Launcher”* keeps the theme of AoE rocket-based damage, retains the strength of an engineer’s mobility, and immediately becomes applicable everywhere.
*I realize this overlaps with the racial skill Charrzooka, but its exact effects will be different.
So instead of a bunch of large-AoE skills from a stationary platform, create a line-firing mobile kit with each shot doing specific status effects. Rockets detonate on the first target hit, causing all effects in a small radius around the target (perhaps 180-200?). This generates play and counterplay by forcing an engineer to position to hit his target, and allowing tankier players to get in the way.
To keep the feeling of “kit swapping”, give the skill a number of charges before going on cooldown, and allow any swapping in and out up to a maximum duration.
Needs changes: Yes. Behold the one and only elite worth taking as an engineer in all situations. Airdrop in an interrupt, then proceed to jack up the enemy with conditions and damage while picking up health and regeneration. Entire fights can be decided just by dropping this skill (to the point that engie vs. engie duels often come down to who timed theirs better).
In some ways, there’s no “fix”, because it does everything an elite should do, and acts as an amazing equalizer in situation where the engineer would otherwise be at a severe disadvantage. But it relies on the turrets for its effectiveness, and turrets in general are about as braindead as it gets. Most of the time in PvP, it comes down to making the engineer burn Supply Crate at the wrong moment, rather than it being legitimately counterplayable.
I’m not sure what to suggest, because its strength is balanced against its cooldown and the fragility of turrets against AoE. It might just be me thinking it’s amazing, and it has more flaws than I see that balance it out further.
Needs changes: Yes. That said, minor ones. Grasping Roots are so powerful because nobody with a ranged projectile weapon is going to destroy them thanks to the hit box being below the line of attack. Hard to kill something that is always obstructed by one’s own body. Extending the hit box “up” to the right level would balance it out while keeping its key strength of making sitting ducks of five unfortunates.
Rampage as One
Needs changes: No.
Spirit of Nature
Needs changes: No. This isn’t as strong as Rampage as One, but when coupled with a bunch of spirits and the appropriate traits it provides really good team support in PvP. It’s not going to break into WvW (can’t handle the damage) or PvE (dies to mass AoE, and only useful if people are screwing up), though.
Needs changes: No.
Needs changes: No.
Needs changes: No. Though being AI-based, it could always be improved.
Conjure Fiery Greatsword
Needs changes: Yes. FGS Rushing into the wall in PvE was the most overpowered way to speed run for a good long while. Then that got nerfed. And the damage output of the skill now is really only useful when abusing large hitboxes or shoring up another player who has bad DPS.
The skill’s focus used to be fire-based ludicrous damage. Now it’s fire-based okay damage. FGS rushing deserved the nerf, but not replacing it with equivalent power somewhere else took the skill out of usefulness. Not to mention that using Fiery Rush is close on the saddest, most disappointing thing to see the results of in the combat log.*
*Reminds me of Smiter’s Boon, now that I think about it.
Glyph of Elementals
Needs changes: Yes. This is a cool idea, but it’s only maybe useful when soloing tough content or WvW roaming. And then it functions as either a damage sponge or a slight DPS boost. The additional skill could be useful if the elemental is allowed to live long enough to use it more than once, but even the earth elemental melts quickly.
It also runs into the AI problems that plague everyone with AI anything. It’s hard to balance the strength of minions when they aren’t reliable in what they do aside from an active skill (and that reliability is often still on a delay beyond the cast time).
Ultimately, it comes down to the niche intended for elementals. If they’re supposed to be front-loaded powerhouses that go down easily, cleaning up their AI and tuning values should be all that’s needed. If they’re supposed to be damage boosts to keep alive and provide support over an extended period (like their 60 second duration implies), cleaning up their AI will need to take into account a sense of self-preservation.
Needs changes: Yes. Quick, let’s have the squishiest profession in the game run into the middle of the fight and cause chaos! What could possibly go wrong? This is a really cool idea, crippled by the profession’s role itself. Even dagger/dagger elementalists dance in and out of the fight, staying just out of reach.
Tornado removes that option, and the typical way to handle one is to get out of launch range and DPS the ele down in the 3 seconds it’ll take. To take away essentially all evasion in favor of marginally more CC than a competent elementalist can apply outside the transform isn’t going to work.
The skill needs to include a stat boost to survivability (like extra toughness/vitality), or confer partial condition immunity (how, praytell, do you cripple or immobilize a tornado?), because it’s practically suicide to use right now.
Needs changes: No.
Polymorph Moa (Tuna)
Needs changes: No.
Needs changes: No.
Needs changes: Yes. Want to explode in a single hit? Let a power necro transform into this and hit 1. No amount of long cooldown and necromancer immobility is going to fix that fact. A properly timed and positioned Lich Form will single-handedly win a teamfight from hitting a couple skills.
Absurd stat gains (undocumented in tooltip no less) aren’t going to be balanced. Yes, gaining tons of health fits, but the damage gain from the huge increase in critical chance breaks it utterly. Add in passive procs from sigils and some might stacks, and players asplode. That’s not fun to play against.
Lich Form should feel powerful, but in ways that aren’t cheap and create knock-on effects with otherwise passive aspects. Rather than gaining precision, the skills themselves should hit harder, perhaps by multiple small hits to prevent outsize critical-based procs (this skill does 3k, then got doubled, and fire and air procced! Bye-bye, 8k health!).
Taking this a touch further, why not make Lich Form a life-sucking presence of death? It deals power-based aura lifesteal and its skills steadily sap over time instead of one-hit KO. That keeps the theme and the power, but pushes the strength away from a lucky hit and towards consistently good positioning and skill use.
Needs changes: No, though PvE encounter design could provide a reason to have a blind-spamming tank.
Summon Flesh Golem
Needs changes: Yes. Flesh golem is only good when paired with minion master spam. The rest of the time its glitchy AI and refusal to attack structures turn its very good DPS into a luck-based mission.
Like the elementals above, flesh golem is wildly unreliable due to AI. When it works, it’s extremely powerful (especially if charges are timed/positioned well), but most of the time it doesn’t. Most necromancers still use it due to the low cooldown and awesome active, but it’s very difficult to balance when it doesn’t work. Simple AI fixes would fix this completely.
Elite skills aren’t what they used to be. Rather than build-defining, they tend to be an icing on the cake or the one option worth slotting. This is caused by the primary role gear plays on a character’s effectiveness and the generally limited effect of most elites. Add in very high cooldowns and it’s all too easy to forget they’re there in most encounters.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the wide range of usefulness in the very few elite skills present in the game needs to be addressed. Every elite should have a use that isn’t trumped by the others in every case. With the expansion and the meta upset it will create on the way, this is an ideal time to bring all elites to the level of awesome.
I’ve offered some suggestions for doing that, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the existing skills and how they could be adjusted to work better. By no means do I consider myself a theorycrafting master, but hopefully my ideas offer a base of discussion to build upon.